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And So It Is, Guest Posts

Taboo.

January 23, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-blackBy Andi Cumbo-Floyd

I heard my mother swear exactly one time.

My brother and I wanted to go to the pool on a blazing summer day. We were already in the back of the Chevette, our legs sticking to the vinyl, and Mom was in the driver’s seat.  I cannot remember what Jeremy and I were badgering her about – going sooner, staying longer, more snacks? – but she lost it a tiny, tiny bit.

“Damn it!” She slammed the door and went inside.

Jeremy and I sat in the car for a long time. I probably cried. In time, she came back out and drove us to the pool.

Swearing was taboo in our house. Even now, when I say “shit” in front of my dad, he winces a bit. . . and then gets that furrow of disapproval between his gray eyebrows.

My parents were quite open to most anything – I shaved my head in 7th grade – no reaction; I never had a curfew, just times my parents asked me to be home; no subject was ever off-limits in books. But swearing was not something that happened in the Cumbo home.

It was a taboo certainly carried over from their devout, somewhat conservative Christian faith and from their generational expectations – polite people just don’t swear.

***

Fuck taboos. I hate them.

I hate the way they make people feel small and tiny. Limited.  Controlled.

I hate the way they are wielded like weapons at dinner parties – in polite conversation, we don’t talk about politics, religion, or money – or touted on blogs as the guidelines for being invited in – “swearing is unnecessary.”

I hate the way that people judge each other – and themselves – when people “air their dirty laundry” as if sharing our pain is somehow violating the limits of proper etiquette.

No.  No!

I believe in hanging it all out – the shit stains and the blood marks and the semen etched by love and loathe into the sheets. Because when we hang it all out, the air gets in and opens it up, opens us up.

Because when we show ourselves, even the inky, burnt parts we normally keep turned inward, we heal.  We breathe again.

***

Someone surely is going to say that there are limits to what we should share and when. . . . and I don’t disagree . . . at least not with the idea that we can be wise about what and whom we open up to.

I do, however, disagree with the “should” because “should” is an agent of control that comes from someone other than ourselves.  “Should” is that pesky, belittling voice that silences us because it is almost never coupled with “breathe” and “rest” and the honest touch of a warm hand.  “Should”- and its brother “should not –  are the voices that shout, not the ones that caress.

I am a Christian. I have been taught for almost four decades what I should and should not do, what it is to be “good” and what it is to be “bad.”  More often the lessons on “good” washed over me like silk that flowed to other people – the girl who was prettier, thinner; the boy who read his Bible more; the woman who always smiled – but without fail, the “bad” sunk into me like acid, leaving my skin intact and burning into my skeleton.  The “should” sticks.  The “good” doesn’t.

So I have found my way past the “should” and “should not” to the space beyond that, where God, in all God’s goodness, whispers love and hope and the kind of forgiveness that is about moving forward not miring down.

***

My mother died from cancer just over three years ago. Even when she was in agonizing pain, she didn’t swear.  She didn’t complain.

I wish she had. I wish she’d let loose with every expletive that came to her as the cancer wracked her body.  I wish she had screamed out the blood that was murdering her minute by minute.

But she didn’t.  She spoke love to us even then.  “I love you . . . ”

Every day.  Every day, I am grateful that I was raised in a family where love overcame everything. . . even the taboos we taught ourselves.  Every day, I’m glad my father’s brow just furrows when I swear . . . and that then, I feel his calloused, soft hand on my shoulder as he whispers, “I’m so proud of you.”

Andi Cumbo-Floyd is the author of  The Slaves Have Names: Ancestors of my Home. She blogs regularly at andilit.com, and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

All of Jen Pastiloff’s events, including Tuscany and Mexico, listed here.

Join Jen at a writing retreat in Mexico this May!  Jennifer Pastiloff is part of the faculty in 2015 at Other Voices Querétaro in Mexico with Gina Frangello, Emily Rapp, Stacy Berlein, and Rob Roberge. Please email Gina Frangello to be accepted at ovbooks@gmail.com. Click poster for info or to book. Space is very limited.

Join Jen at a writing retreat in Mexico this May!
Jennifer Pastiloff is part of the faculty in 2015 at Other Voices Querétaro in Mexico with Gina Frangello, Emily Rapp, Stacy Berlein, and Rob Roberge. Please email Gina Frangello to be accepted at ovbooks@gmail.com. Click poster for info or to book. Space is very limited.

And So It Is, Awe & Wonder

So Much Depends.

August 12, 2013

By Jen Pastiloff

Let’s say it’s like this: He leans over to talk to me. We’re at an airport. Let’s say we are at an overpriced fish place in the Los Angeles International Airport. Flight’s been delayed five hours. Imagine that both of us traveling to the same place: Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He leans over to tell me he’s been married 58 years and that he and his wife normally share dinners and would I like half of his? He lost 4 of his fingers on his right hand 45 years ago on a rotary lawn mower, has an adopted son who is 6 foot 10 and he’s a Christian. He told me to keep talking to God before he passed me half his trout.

He told me he’d “just met so many nice people at the airport.” He’d been there since 6 am. It was now 6 pm. While I was huffing and puffing at all the time wasted he was looking around for the miraculous in the mundane, in the faces of people searching flight status boards or shuffling through security, begrudging the fact that they had to take off their shoes or remove their laptops.

When I told him I was a Jew he grasped his heart as if the fact was astounding enough to actually pain him. One of our neighbors was Jewish and they were just the most wonderful people, he’d said. I laughed (it reminded me of when someone says “I like gay people. I have a friend that’s gay) and told him I wasn’t a practicing Jew. He reminded me that I was one of God’s chosen. I wondered if there were any Jews in South Dakota but didn’t ask him. I knew there was at least one family, his neighbors, The Wonderfuls.

I drank my wine as I watched him carefully cutting his fish and smiling as he scrolled through his cell phone (a Blackberry.)

The man has on this light red raincoat and as my red wine slides down the back of my throat, I think of William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
 chickens.

He leans toward my table. This is a picture of my beautiful wife.

So much depends on how we react to things.

His fingers, for example. How did he react 45 years ago when he was showing his father the newest features on the rotary lawnmower and the blade just sliced his four fingers off like they were irrelevant as dead grass? Nothing more than meat under a glass case at the butcher’s. Hurry, I’m a rush. I’ll take a pound of American and a pound of provolone. Slice it thin, please.  He told me that when he’d lost them he quickly had to learn to laugh about it. I guess I’m going to have to learn to pick my nose with my left hand now.

I didn’t react well to the flight delay. I’d felt entitled and ornery. Ornery is a word that makes me think of old people but my hair is greying (not for much longer, I swear) and I had my glasses on and a face free of any makeup, so I felt like an old person. An ornery old person. Sometimes with my hearing loss, I would mistake horny for ornery. I tend to imagine each word containing parts of the other, like distant relatives.

Doesn’t this airline know how busy I am? Huff. Don’t they know I am trying to write a book proposal? Puff. I made a stink and rolled my eyes and couldn’t believe I had to wait. The flight was meant to leave at 2:40 pm (it didn’t leave until 8:30 pm.) I even thought about going home and canceling my workshop in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

I couldn’t cancel the workshop. People were driving 14 hours from Canada! They were coming from Minnesota! I couldn’t cancel simply because I had to wait a few (okay, 6) hours at the airport. I got my meal voucher from Allegiant Air. (I had also never heard of this airline before this trip. For good reason, apparently.) The meal voucher was for eight dollars which made me chuckle. because really, what can you get for eight dollars besides a half glass of wine or two Snickers bars and a pack of gum? With 8 dollars  (okay $7.69) I bought a New Yorker magazine so I could read the latest by Joyce Carol Oates and a story on the Steubenville rape trial and Twitter. (When did the New Yorker get so pricey?)  I took my eight dollar voucher and with a huge chip on my shoulder, a chip weighing as least as much as a small man, I headed to a restaurant to sit and sulk.

So much depends.

So much depends on where we are. Where we are born. Where we park our asses down to eat a meal. Where we sit to write. Where we lay our head at night. Where we find ourselves on a map changes the course of everything, and whether it’s literal and full of pushpins and highways and mountains, or an emotional one, you better believe that life is an exercise in mapmaking.

I get led to a table for one. There are two men on each side of me, also eating alone. Let’s say I get led to the bar. It then becomes a whole different story. The map is then green instead of red, perhaps.

So much depends on so much.

I was content on being pissed about my wasted time, all the while wasting more time. I got no writing done, no reading done, nothing productive to speak of. So when this older man leans his body towards mine and says something I can’t really make out but which sounds like something to the effect of I’ve been married for 58 years, you know, I smile.

Here, an opportunity for you to connect. Here, someone to talk to. Here, someone offering you his food. Here, some fish.

A red jacket. A red wheelbarrow.

So much depends on where you look.

I loved him immediately. He became my grandfather, my priest/rabbi, my meal ticket, my companion, my cartographer, my reminder to pay attention. He also wore hearing aids (like me! He also became my twin!) He was my fellow conspirator against the hearing world. I heard this story about a man who, after 40 years, finally got a pair of hearing aids, he told me, and ever since he’d had to change his will twice, he laughed. I’d thought he was going to tell me that the man gave the hearing aids back because not hearing had been better.

So much depends.

The fact is, when you can’t hear well you have to pay attention. Closely. You see that lady three tables over licking her fingers and although you can’t hear the slurp, you imagine the suck and the little quack it makes, and the man across from her? You see him eating his chicken sandwich without chewing even though his back is to you. You can tell by the way his jaws move from behind. You can see all this while your ears prick for any sound at all, and, when no sound arrives, your eyes scan the room and notice every painful exchange, every empty gesture, every goddamned chicken finger being picked up and put back down by every child in the world.

There’s nothing you can’t see when you can’t hear so you have to be really careful where you sit or you will see it all.

So much depends on where you sit.

His name was Dick and the thirteen year old in me wanted to laugh when he told me his name. He said dick! Haha, he said dick! He gave me his card and wrote down my name on the bottom half of his own meal voucher for eight dollars, which he tore off and put in his front pocket, next to a pen. Would we ever see each other again? Let’s say: no. Let’s say we leave it at that.

And that that is enough. One of those rare moments in life when we say I don’t need more than this.

The having had it happen. The exchange of two human beings in an airport enough to sustain you for a while. Let’s say that’s the case here.

He pays his bill and shakes my hand. I have a styrofoam container of fish sitting in front of me like a gift and I will remember him by it. The man who gave me half of his dinner. The man in the red jacket with the missing fingers.

He leaves his jacket behind so I reach over and grab it. I drape it over the back of my chair knowing I’ll see him on the plane and can give it to him then. I’ll carry the fish he gave me in one hand and his red coat in another.

For a few minutes I feel calm, as insular as a cave, as sturdy as the land I would soon be visiting in the southwestern part of the state of South Dakota. I am as protected as the Badlands I would be at in just two days time, that rugged terrain I’d dreamt of seeing again ever since I first saw them at 18 years old on a cross country drive I took in a mini-van. Mako Sika, translated as “land bad” or “eroded land”, my beloved Badlands, which beckoned to me with their otherworldliness and various personalities (how human of them!) I was part of them and no one could come close to me in the safety of my red vinyl jacket. I was on the interior.

My insides warm from wine, the red jacket a heart on the back of my chair, holding the world in place. Knowing it’s there enough to keep me sane.

So much depends on a red jacket.

Ah! You found my jacket, he rushes back up to my table.

So much depends.

Yes. I was keeping it safe.

Let’s say it ended like that.

We finally boarded the plane. A few rows up, he sleeps, while my legs shake uncontrollably (too much wine and coffee and too little sleep) and I rest my head on the shoulder of a stranger.

Do you mind if I lean my head on your shoulder?

The stranger was on his way back to Iowa. Football scholarship. Young. Polite. Kind. No, I don’t mind. Lean on me, he says.

So much depends on where you sit.

So much depends.

Let’s say two days later I am standing on the edge of the world, at Pinnacles Overlook right by Route 240 at The Badlands National Park, and let’s say I wished that right then and there I could ask that man in the red jacket if this is what he meant by talking to God?

**This essay is dedicated to Melissa Shattuck for having the chutzpah to get me to South Dakota. And to Dick, naturally. Red wheelbarrows. All of them.

(a p.s. to the story: after I posted about it on my Facebook, through the serendipitous nature of the universe, a woman commented: “The man in the red jacket is my dad!”)

Find the miraculous, even in the mundane.

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Dick. The man in the airport.

Dick. The man in the airport.

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Jen will be back in South Dakota May 28th for one workshop. Click here to book.

 

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